Archive for December 30th, 2008

Humans have been keeping parrots for thousands of years. Unfortunately, though, most of what the average person thinks they know about parrots is incomplete, inaccurate, or just plain wrong. The result of this ignorance is often the mistreatment of birds, made all the sadder (but no less serious) because it is unintentional.
In the hopes of helping people to avoid mistreatment through ignorance, here are 10 common errors about parrots:

  • Parrots are tropical birds: It’s true that many parrots live in the tropics. However, just as members of the corvidae (blackbirds, crows, and ravens) have filled every ecological niche in the northern hemisphere, the psitaccines (parrots) have filled every niche in the southern hemisphere. In other words, you’ll find parrots in temperate zones and even above the snow line in the foothills of the Andes and the Himalayas, not just in warmer climates.
  • All parrots talk: Some parrots pick up words on their own, but, behind every parrot with a large vocabulary is a human who has spent hundreds of hours helping the bird to learn. Nobody can guarantee that a parrot will talk, although you can increase the chances by choosing the species and a bird with talking parents and patient early trainers. However, many of the most lovable parrots I have met don’t talk at all, and, in general, talking ability should be the least important reason for buying a parrot.
  • Parrots don’t understand what you are saying: Despite the use of the verb “to parrot” to mean “to repeat without understanding,” the work of Irene Pepperberg shows that parrots have an intelligence and language-using ability that borders on the lower edges of humanity’s.
  • Parrots lack expression: Just because a parrots’ face is dominated by a large beak doesn’t mean that they are hard to read. Like most social animals, they have complex body language that expresses a variety of moods and reactions. Observe or ask around, and you’ll have no trouble understanding how a parrot is responding.
  • Parrots require less attention than dogs or cats: In fact, the opposite is true: Most parrots are intensely social, and require much more attention than most pets. Confining a parrot to a cage all the time is actually a form of abuse, even if the SPCA doesn’t recognize it as such.
  • Parrots are dirty: In fact, parrots are as fastidiousness as cats. They will spend hours cleaning and grooming their feathers into the proper position. And, given half a chance, most will learn to relieve themselves in one particular area. Generally, whenever you see a dirty bird, you are seeing the result of improper treatment.
  • Keeping a parrot in a cage is cruel: All parrots are very territorial, and, as adults, will have their private space. In the wild, that space is usually a nest. But, for domestic parrots, that space is often a cage, or includes it. So long as a parrot can come and go for large parts of the day, providing a cage is not only far from cruel but also essential for a bird’s mental health.
  • Parrots only eat seed: Seed can be an important part of a parrots’ diet. However, to stay healthy and live a long life, parrots also need fresh fruit and vegetables. These days, several types of pellets exist to give them the proper nutrition, but you should probably vary pellets with other foods, if only to give the birds some variety. After all, no matter how much you love lasagna, you probably don’t want to eat it every day for three meals a day.
  • When a parrot reaches for you with his or her beak, it’s going to bite you: Well, sometimes. But parrots also use their beak to help them climb, and their tongues to taste a human or other bird as a tentative gesture of trust. The trick is to learn parrot body language so that you know what the bird reaching for you intends and how you should respond. Otherwise, you may get a bite simply because a bird is responding to your nervousness in kind.
  • Parrots mix well with other animals: Some parrots get along well with other animals. However, others do not. The truth is, you should never let different species interact unsupervised, because one species may not understand the other’s body language. If you do, you are risking injury and trauma to one or more animals – and not always to the parrot; more than one cat has learned the hard way that a beak is a deadly weapon.
  • Parrots can live to be over a hundred years old: A parrot’s life expectancy depends on the species. Some macaws are known to have lived into their eighties, while a cockatoo at the San Diego Zoo was over 100 and blind when it died. Other parrots seem to live 40-70 years. However, very little research has been done on the subject, and we don’t know much about parrot life spans, except to say that, properly cared-for domestic birds probably live an average of twice as long as their wild counterparts.

There is much more that you can learn about parrots, but a great deal of that is learnable only over years. However, if you remember these debunkings, you will at least not have to unlearn very much before you start to understand parrots.

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